Chinese students under mental pressure overseas

By Wang Bozun Source:Global Times Published: 2016-5-5 21:03:01

Curtin University graduates take pictures at the graduation ceremony in Perth, Australia. Photo: IC

The sign hanging above the desk of Xiao Lu, a Chinese student at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, read "Perseverance prevails. Never give up."  The 28-year-old seemed to have a bright future ahead after finishing his MBA at one of the best business schools in the US and returning home. 

But Lu's life ended in the icy waters of Lake Michigan earlier this year. A police investigation found no evidence of homicide, and that instead he chose a higher spot at the lakeside before ending his own life, reported the World Journal newspaper.

Lu's mother told media nothing seemed to be wrong when she and her son talked on video chat three days before his death.

Lu's tragedy is not an isolated one.

In recent years, as the Chinese upper class has gotten richer, many parents have chosen to send their children abroad. Statistics from Open Door Data show the number of Chinese students studying in the US surpassed 300,000 in 2015.

But Lu's has not been the only suicide. Li Yangkai, 20, who studied at Johns Hopkins University, jumped from the roof of his apartment building one year ago, after suffering from insomnia and depression. Lin Xu, a 22-year-old student at California State University in Fullerton, jumped from a five-storey building in his school after failing to complete a language project.

Cultural differences

Qiu Yan, a US lawyer who has handled several cases involving suicidal Chinese students, said some suffer insomnia and depression when they encounter culture shock, the language barrier, academic pressure and communication difficulties.

In the past, the majority of Chinese students in the US were postgraduates, usually self-funded or on scholarships. But with the increasing number of rich Chinese parents ready to foot the bill, students are getting younger.

The percentage of undergraduates has been rapidly increasing, from 14.9 percent in 2005 up to 39.8 percent in 2013, while the rate of graduate students went down from 76.1 percent in 2005 to 43.9 percent in 2013, according to the Open Doors Data. Psychologists say that younger students may be less prepared to cope with the stresses of studying abroad.

Chinese student Brad Wang, at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told the Global Times that, "it's not only the language barrier, it also involves culture difference ... the reason we fail to understand lies in that we have not gone through their childhood."

"A smart way to find a shared topic is to learn some American culture, like what cartoons they watch what movies are popular, and try to find the breakthroughs, by starting with mutual topic," Wang added.

Different teaching methods in the US and China, although often the factor that attracts students to the US system, can also stress students. Whereas Chinese teaching often focuses on rote learning, American teachers prefer to assign open-ended questions and leave ­essays, which requires a lot of practical research and teamwork.  Chinese students often have problems working together, and find longer projects that require their own research hard to finish.

"Chinese students are shy and silent when they are in group meetings, this is a main reason they get lower scores than local students," said another Chinese student Shu Ting, adding "I think the group meetings are also great opportunities to socialize and learn from local students."

"Making a reasonable studying plan is very useful," Wang noted, saying that Chinese students have to understand that getting used to an English environment takes time. 

Shared stresses

Campus suicide is not limited to overseas students. In the US, suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students, regardless of their origin. In China, universities often see several suicides every year; a 2006 study in Hebei found that every campus in the province had at least one student kill themselves every year, and often more.

But cultural factors may play a role. China's overseas students are often only children, and face strong pressure from their parents to succeed. Some may also not be ready to study in a foreign language, or to attend university at all. Fear of failure can be intense as a result.

Studies in the US show that Asian-American students, who often come from similar cultural and family backgrounds to Chinese mainland students, dominate the suicide statistics on campus.

At Cornell University, 61 percent of suicides between 1996 and 2006 involved Asian-American students; at the elite MIT, the Asian-American suicide rate was four times the national average. Across the country as a whole, Asian-Americans were twice as likely to kill themselves as other college students, according to the Re-Appropriate website.

US campuses have many resources available for psychiatric care, but Chinese students may be unaware of them or more unwilling to take advantage due to cultural stigma around mental illness.

When feeling pressure or suffering from mental problems, Chinese students should seek professional psychological assistance as soon as possible, Qiu Yan, the lawyer, suggested based on his experiences. 

Newspaper headline: Campus crisis

Posted in: Americas, Cross-Borders

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